On Global James Bond Day, Film Critic Tony Earnshaw considers the road travelled by the timeless embodiment of Cool Britannia.
He’s a killer, a charmer and a survivor. Now James Bond, arguably British cinema’s ultimate icon, is 50.
A half century in movie years is but a blink of an eye. In reality – if James Bond was real – he would be 96-years-old. Like Doctor Who he has been endlessly reincarnated, morphing from one old face to an eager new one. Call it generational, call it cyclical, call it cynical manipulation by a film company onto a good thing. But James Bond goes on.
James Bond Mark VI, aka Daniel Craig, is at 44 the youngest actor since Sean Connery to play the role. Connery was just 31 when he filmed Dr No; in Ian Fleming’s books Bond was described as “late 37” so the Scotsman was actually too young. Craig, hired in 2005, was 38 and just right in age at least.
Ian Fleming would probably no longer recognise the hero he created in 1953 in Casino Royale. Since his film debut in 1962 he has gradually drifted away from Fleming’s concept and into a shadow of what he once was.
In truth, Bond has changed with the times, shifting from taciturn Cold War warrior to 21st-century cultural icon. As the world has changed and old enemies have faded, so Bond has changed with it, always ready for a new fight.
When asked what he would do after the war, Lieutenant-Commander Ian Fleming, Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, answered simply: “Write the spy story to end all spy stories.”
James Bond – the name was taken from an ornithology book, Birds of the West Indies, by a certain James Bond – was conceived as “a blunt instrument wielded by a government department. Hard, ruthless, sardonic, fatalistic. He likes gambling, golf, fast motor cars. All his movements are relaxed and economical…” Fleming himself admitted that, at least partly, he was living vicariously through his creation.
“It is the author’s pillow fantasy,” he said. “I really don’t see why Bond should drink miserable cups of tea and dreary half-pints of bitter. I insist on seeing that the man enjoys only the best. He gets the girls – beautiful girls – but I make him suffer for it.”
Bond emerged into a frosty, austere post-war climate. The Cold War was building to its height. Britain was still in the midst of rationing. Life was grim. Then, suddenly, along came a character who scythed through all of that with abandon.
Whatever Bond wanted, he got. He acted with dispassion and, often, with cruelty. He was an Etonian thug in a tuxedo – a man equally at home in a fistfight as he was at the roulette wheel. His impact was immediate, and the public clamoured for more.
Soon Fleming was dreaming up ever more exotic locations and villains for Bond to tangle with – all of them over-the-top supercriminals in the mould of Professor Moriarty and Fu Manchu.
It was producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli who had the vision and the character to bring Fleming to the negotiating table and to put it into his vision of Bond on the big screen.
With partner Harry Saltzman he chose the first book to be filmed, selected his director and, after rejecting the likes of Richard Burton, Trevor Howard and James Mason, picked Scotsman Sean Connery, an up-and-coming television actor whose film roles had barely made an impact. It was a stroke of genius.
Connery began his tenure as a cool, dry, cynical, laconic and often cruel figure, bedding or shooting women as the mood took him. In Dr No, he casually used a dance partner as a human shield to avoid a well-aimed bullet. In another scene, he steps from the shadows, toys with and finally coldly guns down a would-be assassin who’s just pumped a revolver full of bullets into his bed with the words: “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.”
But such realism began becoming increasingly hard to find as the series wore on. Broccoli, recognising the character’s appeal, increased the girls, exotic locations and, most tellingly, the gadgets, until 007 was playing second fiddle in his own story. Broccoli followed the immensely successful From Russia with Love with four more movies starring Connery before the big Scot tired of 007’s typecasting.
There are those who say On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, for which robotic former model George Lazenby was momentarily hired to fill Connery’s shoes, is the closest film to Fleming’s books. When Lazenby failed, Connery was briefly re-hired for Diamonds are Forever before exiting again, only to return 12 years later in the “rogue Bond” Never Say Never Again.
Roger Moore – 44 when he landed the role – turned Connery’s suave thug into a jolly japester with a nice line in wisecracks in seven films before bowing out in 1985 with A View to a Kill. He was Broccoli’s favourite.
“We started off with the wrong kind of Bond,” said Broccoli in the mid-70s. “Fleming’s version was the school-tie Roger Moore.”
During the Moore years the gadgets and villains became more outlandish. Audiences loved it. What’s more, they expected it.
Broccoli was working to a formula: beautiful locations, stunning women, a comic book villain and a resident superhero. In creating a franchise he had killed off Fleming’s Bond. All that remained now were the story titles and character names. The scripts – and resulting movies – bore very little resemblance to Fleming’s tales of Cold War derring-do.
Interestingly, Fleming’s only movie script, a 1950s version of his novel Moonraker, has never been used by producers Eon, possibly because it now appears positively archaic alongside the more traditional 007 adventures.
In 1986, Broccoli selected his perfect Bond: 33-year-old Pierce Brosnan, then the star of Remington Steele, a dull American TV series. But it would be eight years before he assumed the role, after the show’s makers reminded him of his contractual obligations.
Broccoli, his grand plan in tatters, slunk away to lick his wounds. Into his sights stepped saturnine Timothy Dalton. Broccoli hired Dalton and with him made The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. But Dalton was reluctant to sign on for a long run. By 1993, when the 17th Bond adventure was announced for production Dalton, who must have realised he was only ever going to be a stopgap for Brosnan, was not attached to it. The Bond series was in limbo.
Eight years on from that tantalising, and lost, invitation, Pierce Brosnan remained an actor largely on the periphery of movie stardom. At 41 when he signed up for three 007 movies, he was older than Connery, but younger than Moore when they landed the part. He knew he had some shoes to fill.
He needn’t have worried. GoldenEye proved to be a massive hit and rejuvenated not just the Bond franchise but also the faltering big-screen career of its heartthrob star.
Re-launching James Bond to a Nineties audience also meant re-inventing the entire concept. Bond had become a tired anachronism, a period piece from the 1960s that, somehow, had meandered through the 1970s and into the 1980s. In an age of blue-collar tough guys like Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs and Die Hard’s John McClane, his sophisticated charm, wit and debonair style stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Bond was past it.
Thus Broccoli, Brosnan and the rest were sailing into uncharted territory. There was an urgency to GoldenEye and it piled on the stunts and spectacle. Brosnan had brought a touch of Connery back to Bond.
The man chosen to resurrect 007 and his covert world was Martin Campbell, a New Zealander who had cut his directorial teeth on The Professionals. Campbell delivered an effective amalgam of old Bond – gadgets, innuendo, stuntwork – with new Bond – 21st-century technology, post-Glasnost politics and a space age superweapon.
The casting of Brosnan signalled a new beginning and he admitted during filming: “The stakes were high. There was a desperate need to get it right.”
When the brand was further reinvented in 2006 (by Campbell again) with the addition of Daniel Craig to the 007 stable it was as much a reaction to the Bourne films as it was the need to evolve. Craig was faster, harder and tougher, a two-fisted killing machine equally at home at the baccarat table as wrapping a garrotte around the neck of an enemy. Realism was the touchstone, “Thou shalt not quip” the credo.
Craig’s latest, Skyfall, is on the horizon. The TV airwaves are littered with adverts for eau de cologne, watches, cars. Adele is warbling the theme song. Bond is back in a $200m picture by Sam Mendes. He’s wearing well.
And so Bond soldiers on. It is half a century now since James Bond, agent 007, first strode across our cinema screens. In 2012, his various incarnations are in their dotage. Sean Connery is 82, George Lazenby is 73, Timothy Dalton is 68, Pierce Brosnan is 59 and Roger Moore will be 85 on October 14.
Bond lovers everywhere are hoping that this unique sextet will get together for a bonding exercise – the ultimate 007 photo opportunity. Pigs might fly, but I doubt it.
Man with the golden pen
As well as writing the Bond thriller Diamonds Are Forever, Fleming also wrote The Diamond Smugglers, a non-fiction account of smuggling in Sierra Leone.
The first American paperback edition of Moonraker was retitled Too Hot to Handle and Casino Royale was retitled You Asked for It.
The film series has to date grossed more than $5bn, making it the second-highest-grossing film series of all-time just behind Harry Potter.
In 1967, David Niven and Peter Sellers starred in a 007 spoof of Casino Royale, Fleming’s first James Bond novel. The film received a mixed reception with one critic, Roger Ebert, branding it “possibly the most indulgent film ever made”.